Back from the future again 

In its progress from a surprise hit made on a relatively modest budget back in the 1980s to its current status as yet another mammoth summer spectacular, The Terminator has undergone the familiar transformation from innovative and influential work with some genuine intellectual implications to yet another ho-hum blockbuster. It now seems to have ascended to what insiders call the "franchise movie," a constantly reiterated version of some popular original that grows ever more elaborate and expensive as it diminishes in freshness and vivacity.

            In the true franchise flick --- the Star Wars or Star Trek series, for example, or the James Bond industry -- it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one film from another and, after a while, nobody cares. With the third picture in the series, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, everybody should therefore know pretty much what to expect from the characters and situation. Most fans will probably be pleased that all those expectations are met and that the movie therefore offers few, if any, surprises.

            To motivate its central action, Terminator 3, like its predecessors, combines the somewhat outdated anticipation of the apocalypse with the perennial dread of the machine. Once again, therefore, humanity faces extinction from its own creation, a missile defense system called Skynet, which resembles that recurring fantasy of the military-industrial complex familiarly known as Star Wars. And once again, the self-replicating machines of the future send back a cyborg to prevent John Connors (Nick Stahl) from fulfilling the promise of his initials and becoming the savior of mankind.

            Perhaps because of the initially ingenious use of time travel, the series has entrapped itself in a sort of loop, so that it must, like Groundhog Day, endlessly repeat itself. That repetition results in the usual cyborgs popping into the present like animated champagne corks, so that the good cyborg, our old friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, will defend John Connors and his girlfriend (Clare Danes) against the murderous bad cyborg, T-X (Kristanna Loken). The reiterated pattern of pursuit, narrow escape, and, of course, the rhythmic clash of the two cyborgs pretty much defines the action and substance of the picture.

            In the second film of the series, the interaction between the young John Connor and the good Terminator provided some of the emotional content and even some humorous moments. The kid instructed the stolid cyborg in something resembling friendship and even a sense of humor, and taught him the now famous phrase, "Hasta la vista, baby." This time around the script almost entirely ignores the human potential in the relationship between the now older John Connor and the current Terminator, an exact replica of the previous two, which means the movie itself mostly lacks the depth of feeling and the sometimes witty resonance of its immediate predecessor.

            The diminution of imagination appears most immediately and strikingly in the first great action sequence, one of those now obligatory chases that serve to display not only the expected stunts and pyrotechnics, but also the expenditure of enormous sums of money. For a generation that regards filmmaking as the employment of expensive special effects, such exhibits of conspicuous consumption confirm that the movie constitutes the contemporary notion of first-class entertainment. Since the chase in question shows a battered little Toyota truck outracing and outmaneuvering scores of larger, faster vehicles, including motorcycles, sports cars, police cars, fire trucks, and a Cadillac sedan, the audience will also recognize that they are in the presence of an entirely meaningless display of action for its own sake.

            As for the rest of the movie, it mostly extends and repeats the material of the first two --- a few gestures toward the paradox of time travel, a number of ominous statements about the impending apocalypse, and a series of violent confrontations between the two Terminators. Their fights emphasize a latent kinkiness in the series. When the mighty Arnold and his voluptuous opponent, both attired in tight, shiny leather outfits, grapple and hug and throw each other around, the film turns into something like an exercise in soft-core S and M or Wesson oil-wrestling night at the local topless bar. The script's other love story, the developing relationship between Nick Stahl and his future mate, Clare Danes, counts for almost nothing, since neither actor possesses enough presence to cast a shadow, and both must necessarily look wan and diminutive next to Arnold and his luscious counterpart.

            The original Terminator reflected some of the anxieties of its time --- a nervous anticipation of the year 2000, the tensions of the Cold War, the fear of the senile, bellicose Reagan presidency, the underlying suspicion of an isolating technology. The new film needs a more exact relevance to a new era, which features a powerful secret police, a citizenry happily relinquishing its liberties to a corrupt oligarchy, preemptive warfare on flimsy pretexts against vulnerable opponents: in short, the triumph of the machine that the earlier film warned against. As the Terminator says, when comparing his abilities to those of his new, improved opponent, "I am obsolete." And indeed he is.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Clare Danes, David Andrews, Kristanna Loken, Mark Famiglietti, Earl Bowen, Moira Harris; story by John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Ted Sarafian; screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; directed by Jonathan Mostow. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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